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Russia may gain a lot from Belarus-EU conflict

March 01, 2012, 15:54 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The current conflict between Belarus and Russia may play into Russia’s hands, analysts believe. In their opinion, the crisis in relations with the EU will enhance Minsk’s dependence on Moscow and speed up the transition of key assets of the Belarussian economy into Russian hands.

In the diplomatic war between the European Union and Belarus Russia backed up its partner in the Union State. Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, one of the presidential candidates, said on Wednesday that sanctions were an element of pressure, which should be avoided in international relations for the simple reason they are ineffective. Putin voiced regret over the measures the EU took against Minsk. He is certain that the situation is a result of political relations between the two countries and has no effects at all on the integration processes within the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

“The sad events in Libya and Iraq indicate that whatever sanctions may be used, they eventually lead to intervention, largely because they were ineffective,” Putin said.

The European Union on Wednesday revoked its ambassadors from Belarus. The conflict between Brussels and Minsk, which flared up in the wake of a crackdown on the Opposition after the presidential election in Belarus, culminated. European Union representative Maira Mora and Poland’s ambassador Leszek Szerepka left Minsk. Belarussain Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh explained that “the diplomats were asked to go to their respective capitals for consultations to brief their leaderships on the firm position of the Belarussian side regarding the impermissibility of sanctions.” The ambassadors of other EU countries will leave Minsk in a gesture of solidarity. The European Union has threatened Belarus with large-scale sanctions, which would cause a serious blow on the country’s economy.

The conflict broke out over the tightening of sanctions that the European Union imposed after the presidential election in Belarus in December 2010. The police then clamped down on demonstrations by the opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko, and many leaders of the Opposition found themselves behind bars. The EU introduced visa sanctions against the president and another 209 Belarussian officials. And on February 28 that list was complemented with another 21 names. Mostly, those of judges whom the Belarussian human rights officials hold responsible for passing politically motivated sentences on members of the Opposition.

Of late, Alexander Lukashenko was keenly maneuvering between Moscow and Brussels, trying not to get too much dependent on either Europe or its neighbor in the East, but sometimes he entered into open conflicts with Moscow. However, the acute currency crisis that hit Belarus last year limited the Belarussian leader’s room for maneuver. In November 2011 Lukashenko had to cede to Gazprom the other half of Beltransgaz pipelines in exchange for 2.5 billion rubles and a low price of Russian gas.

Moscow appreciated this behavior by its partner in the Customs Union. On February 24 the presidents of Russia and Belarus, after warnings by the US and the European Union to the effect they might apply restrictions in relation to Minsk, issued a joint statement to point to the impermissibility of using means of economic pressure or compulsion in international relations.

“Such measures will create artificial barriers in trade and groundless obstructions to economic cooperation by economic entities, and hinder the legitimate interests of the economic security of states, which is fraught with damage to productive mutually beneficial cooperation and the development of integration processes in Eurasia. This will have negative effects, first and foremost on ordinary citizens,” Medvedev and Lukashenko said in the joint statement.

The daily Kommersant quotes sources in the Russian government and the Foreign Ministry as saying Minsk sill needs money to comply with its social obligations to the population. In this situation, the officials said, Moscow very much hopes for the early resumption of talks on the sale of hefty chunks of Belarussian economic assets to Russian investors. In the first place this applies to the oil refinery Naftan and the Mozyr refinery, having a capacity of 22 million tonnes a year, fertilizers manufacturer Belaruskaliy and some dairy factories. Earlier, in a bid to lay hands on these assets Moscow conducted a milk war with Minsk in the middle of 2009. And at the beginning of 2010 there was an oil war with Belarus.

The negotiations on another 3-billion-loan tranche from the EurAsEC anti-crisis fund are expected to make Minsk more compromising. Economic reforms in Belarus, in the first place, the privatization of government assets, are one of the conditions for lending. As a source in the government told the periodical, already now “the Belarussian partners have demonstrated their positive attitude,” and the negotiations may enter into an active phase after the presidential election in Russia.

“In the Belarussian economy the problems are so serious that Lukashenko cannot afford to make gestures this or that way,” the deputy director of the CIS Studies Institute, Vladimir Zharikhin, told Itar-Tass. “He has no alternative other than to be closer to Russia. Even if the EU were eager to cater to every whim of his, it doesn’t have enough money even for Greece.”

According to the expert, no other country but Russia will be able to lend money to Belarus.

The first deputy chairman of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, believes that the conflicting parties are locking themselves up in the vicious circle of mutual claims and repressions, while recognizing that the political system of Belarus is “far from perfection.”

He believes that “outside pressures from the EU are so open and unceremonious that in the final count they may merely lead to the international isolation of Belarus with the net effect of perpetuating its internal problems.”

 

MOSCOW, March 1